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‘It’s the Legacy of Slavery’: Here’s the Troubling History Behind Tipping Practices in the U.S.

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

These days, the expectation at U.S. restaurants that diners will tip their servers is a key part of the culinary economy: tips subsidize a server or bartender’s salary at the vast majority of the nearly 650,000 restaurants in the country.

But tipping wasn’t always part of the U.S. dining landscape — and scholars who have studied its origins point out that its oft-debated role in the modern economy isn’t the only thing potentially troubling about tips.

In the earliest days of the practice, its spread was linked to the racial oppression of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period.

The idea of giving someone money for their work isn’t one that really needs an origin story, but modern American tipping — the practice of the customer giving a gratuity on top of the money that the employee gets from his or her employer — does have a beginning. (As for the word itself, many are familiar with the tale that “To Insure Promptness” was a phrase written on dishes for coins at shops, thus creating the acronym of “tip,” but that’s just a myth.) Some accounts credit European travelers with bringing the custom to the U.S.; others credit American travelers with bringing tipping back from Europe. The truth? Wealthy Americans in the 1850s and 1860s discovered the tradition, which had originated in medieval times as a master-serf custom wherein a servant would receive extra money for having performed superbly well, on vacations in Europe. Wanting to seem aristocratic, these individuals began tipping in the United States upon their return.

At first, most diners were largely against it, deeming it both inherently condescending and classist. How could poor Americans be expected to pay for their food, and add a “tip” on top? In fact, there was so much anti-tipping traction that, in the 1860s, the attitude spread to Europe. That’s one reason why there is no tipping expected at most European restaurants today, according to Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, who advocates for the equalization of wages for tipped and non-tipped workers.

“But in the States, that movement was squashed, and we went to the exact opposite direction,” Jayaraman tells TIME, “because of slavery.”

After the Constitution was amended in the wake of the Civil War, slavery was ended as an institution but those who were freed from bondage were still limited in their choices. Many who did not end up sharecropping worked in menial positions, such as servants, waiters, barbers and railroad porters. These were pretty much the only occupations available to them. For restaurant workers and railroad porters, there was a catch: many employers would not actually pay these workers, under the condition that guests would offer a small tip instead.

“These industries demanded the right to basically continue slavery with a $0 wage and tip,” Jayaraman says.

Despite tipping’s growing prominence, many remained unhappy about the custom in the years following Reconstruction. Six states temporarily abolished the practice in 1915. In 1918, Georgia’s legislature deemed tips as “commercial bribes,” or tips for the purpose of influencing service, illegal. Iowa’s initial 1915 decision said that those who accepted a gratuity of any kind — not those who gave the money themselves — could be fined or imprisoned.

Even with that pushback, the practice grew in popularity in many Southern states. By 1926, all of these laws had been repealed or deemed unconstitutional by the respective state’s Supreme Court, according to Kerry Segrave’s Tipping: An American Social History of Gratitudes.

Restaurateurs soon realized that they stood to benefit from the opportunity to subsidize a worker’s pay with guests’ extra money, says Douglass Miller, a lecturer at the Hotel School of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University. So, even as the racial dynamics of the United States evolved, the practice spread throughout the country — including in the North — and stuck.

How tipping works today is pretty much the way it has since a New Deal-era solidification of the federal minimum wage for tipped workers, Jayaraman explains. Beginning with 1938 legislation, employers were only required to pay tipped workers a wage that would add up to the federal minimum wage when combined with tips. Further legislation was passed in the 1970s to offer fairer wages for restaurant workers. Today, the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13. (The main federal minimum wage is $7.25.)

Only seven states mandate that all workers, regardless of tips, must be paid the “full state minimum wage before tips,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“It’s the legacy of slavery that turned the tip in the United States from a bonus or extra on top of a wage,” Jayaraman argues, “to a wage itself.”

Two-thirds of these tipped workers — in states that don’t mandate the full minimum wage — are women, according to ROC United’s research. Jayaraman argues that this practice “indicates the value that America has placed on women, and in particular women of color, over the last 150 years.”

A common explanation for gratuity’s prominence in the restaurant industry today is the incentive it provides for servers to work harder. But modern research questions the validity of that assumption. For example, Michael Lynn of Cornell’s 2001 paper “Restaurant Tipping and Service Quality: A Tenuous Relationship” highlights various ways restaurateurs rely on tips as a marker of server performance but posits that using tips as a measure of effort or as motivation for hard work is ineffective, and that there is little to no correlation between tips and performance. “Restaurant managers need to find and use other means of accomplishing those tasks,” he wrote.

However, abolishing tipping is much easier said than done from a financial perspective, as restaurants might have to raise menu prices to fill the gap. “As a culture, since we underpay for the quality of the food that we eat [in the United States], then that presents a dilemma where the customer doesn’t want to pay for the food,” Miller says.

And even if American consumers were willing to pay a higher price tag for food, Miller says this isn’t what all servers want. There are many waiters around the country living on the poverty line, Miller says, and working a busy Friday or Saturday night shift feels like a way to make more money — even though research shows that’s not usually the case overall. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, says that the poverty rate among restaurant workers is significantly lower (at only 7%, versus 18%) in states where restaurants are required to pay minimum wage as a base salary.

Jayaraman says a new chapter in the history of tipping might be on its way. An organization called Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE) is working to enact legislation, at both the state and national level, to eliminate sub-minimum wage payments for tipped workers.

The state of Michigan passed a law in September that will raise its minimum wage to $12, including for tipped workers, by 2022. The New York Department of Labor has been mulling over new legislation since the start of 2018 that would equalize these wages as well (restaurant servers in New York City currently receive a pre-tip cash wage of $8.65). Jayaraman says there are around a dozen other states that are together looking to provide a livable wage, regardless of tips, to restaurant workers. At the federal level, Jayaraman says RAISE, which launched in 2013, has introduced measures to Congress as well. If the House flips in the midterm elections, Jayaraman says RAISE’s dream could become a reality.

“If #MeToo and Time’s Up can be seen as resistance to this Administration, then I think what we’re seeing among restaurant workers can be said to be that as well,” Jayaraman says.

Correction, Aug. 20, 2019

The original version of this story misstated which amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery. It was the 13th, not the 15th.

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Write to Rachel E. Greenspan at rachel.greenspan@time.com